Written by: Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad
Directed by: William Eubank
Starring: Kristen Steward, Jessica Henwick, and Vincent Cassel
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Seven miles below the ocean's surface, something has awakened.
I had to really book it to make it to my showing of Underwater, and, despite hatching a quick escape plan from work, I didnít make it until around 10 minutes after the advertised start time. Thankfully, Regalís pre-show stuff runs longer than ever*, meaning I still made it in enough time to see four trailers. And Iím definitely not complaining because had I been even two minutes late to Underwater, I would have missed quite a bit. Conventional wisdom says you should spend some time the characters in a monster movie, if only to honor the pretense that we should care a little bit about what happens to them. Well, the folks behind Underwater donít want to hear your conventional wisdom: theyíre gonna give you about 90 seconds of Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth and delivering a ponderous voiceover monologue before everything goes to utter hell, setting off a relentless disaster movie that also just happens to feature weird sea creatures. Thereís no time for exposition, much less small talk or silly things like character moments.
Technically, some exposition arrives in the form of newspaper headlines during the opening credits, which tell you everything you need to know: thereís an ultra-high tech but somewhat covert facility at the bottom of the ocean, where some strange phenomena has led to various rumors. Stewart is Norah Price, the rigís mechanical engineer whoís roaming around in the bowels of the place when itís struck by an apparent earthquake. The damage is immediate and catastrophic, leaving herself and five other survivors to make a mad dash across the Mariana Trench before the entire structure collapses, evading mysterious monsters in the process. That itóthatís the movie.
But it also just happens to be an $80 million riff on this threadbare theme. I wish we got more movies like Underwater: B-movie productions masquerading as Hollywood blockbusters with dope casts and an effects budget thatís all right up there on the screen. Honestly, it seems kind of staggering that this thing was even greenlit in the first place, not that Iím complaining, of course. As someone whoís longed for aquatic horror to recapture whatever fleeting glory it may have had, Underwater is practically a godsend. If Iíve said it once, Iíve said it a million times, but these things generally only work with absolute conviction behind them, and Underwater has plenty of it. There is no doubt in my mind that everyone involved did their best to craft the finest version of this story imaginable.
They were mostly successful at doing so, too. Some will argue that this cast is probably too overqualified to be in a movie that mostly has them rumbling about in giant suits and breathlessly spitting curt, expository dialogue, but thereís immediate gravitas when youíre watching the likes of Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel tread water in this kind of nonsense. Everyone involved picks up the scriptís slack here by at least bringing some kind of presence to the screen, giving Underwater some crucial heft. It might not explicitly ask the audience to invest deeply in these characters, but the performers have a nice chemistry that isnít hindered by unnecessary bullshit in the script. This isnít one of those movies where youíre going to see survivors bicker with each other or dig up old resentments or anything like that. Everyone just wants to make it out alive, and their camaraderie is so convincing that you believe even T.J. Miller is a decent guy.
The script does try to manufacture some drama with quick insights into some of the charactersí pasts: Stewart has a tragic story involving her fiancťe, while Cassel is haunted by his daughterís death. Millerís carrying around a plush rabbit for some reason. None of this stuff really matters in the grand scheme, not when the film (mercifully) doesnít have any time to dwell on it. Higher priorities exist, after all, like putting every single one of these characters through a journey that becomes more harrowing with each step. Thereís a moment early on that (perhaps unwittingly) captures the filmís true aim: as the huddled survivors gather to wait for a platform lift, one of them reminds the others that the scariest part of riding a roller coaster is waiting in line. Itís one of the very few beats that counts as downtime in an otherwise relentless movie looking to pack is many thrills into its 90-minute runtime as it possibly can.
A cursory glance at Underwater inspires a predictable comparison to Alien: hereís another gritty, intense depiction of a ragtag, blue collar crew encountering a vicious lifeform in a claustrophobic environment. Save for that barebones plot structure (and a whiff of insidious corporate interests), itís not really the most apt of comparisons. Underwater doesnít unfold with the natural, slow burn approach that makes Alien such a masterfully tense, foreboding experience. Itís much more boisterous in the way it hurtles its characters and its audience from one clamorous action sequence to the next with reckless abandon.
To his credit, director William Eubank crafts a fine patchwork of unnerving suspense and well-earned jolts from the material. He exploits the naturally harrowing environment, playing up the murky chaos of being trapped 7 miles below the surface of the sea. Even without the monsters that eventually terrorize the crew, Underwater just feels perilous as hell: if the survivors arenít riding on some rickety, ramshackle rail to a waystation that may or may not provide sanctuary, then theyíre trawling through treacherous tunnels flooding with water. The entire facility is practically a ticking timebomb set to explode and collapse at any moment, heightening the urgency. (A nice touch: so many of these sets are actually sets, with minimal green-screen work, which emphasizes the lived-in quality of the production.) Underwater has nearly all the makings of a classic thriller that constantly leads the audience to wonder just how in the hell its characters will possibly escape.
Many wonít, of course, and Underwater is downright ruthless in the way it lays waste to its characters. One surefire way to let your audience know that you arenít fucking around is to literally vaporize a completely decent human being within the first 20 minutes or so. Thereís definitely a bite to Underwater thatís admirable, even if it becomes a bit diluted during a middle stretch this grows tedious with mounting sound and fury. A glimmer of respite briefly flashes when the script cleverly isolates Stewart from the rest of the crew, allowing her to project her trademark nervous energy and interiority before sheís flung back into the fray to resume the routine.
The emergence of the monsters admittedly adds a welcome wrinkle to that routine. Eubank does right by them too: he may have been in a rush to introduce the catastrophe that sets the film into motion, but heís more patient when revealing the monsters. Audiences catch some fleeting glimpses of the creatures, whose brief early appearances provide some nice little jump scares (at least three really good ones, including a fake-out involving an octopus, which I should get to say more often in a review, in my opinion). Their presence builds to a gradual series of reveals about the nature of the beast here: you start with a nice, slimy larvae form before moving way up to a pretty stunning final form that reveals the ambition on display here.
But I also canít help but wonder if the increased scale towards the end is a bit at odds with the claustrophobic intimacy of the rest of the film. The riveting, pulse-pounding energy doesnít quite come to a screeching halt, but itís anticlimactic to see an otherwise gritty, tactile movie involving squishy, goopy creatures degenerate into Kristen Stewart manning a keyboard to blow up a giant monster from a distance. Even if it doesnít completely squander all the goodwill Underwater earns, it just feels like a swing and a miss. Of course, if a movie is going to miss, Iíd definitely like to see it go down swinging.
Underwater does that without question: it might not seek to revolutionize this genre, but thereís certainly a place for Hollywood throwing an inordinate amount of money at well-orchestrated schlock like this. If I had to compare it to anything, Iíd probably point to Life, its space-bound doppelganger that also sported an overqualified cast and a vicious mean streak. Like that film, Underwater is missing that certain oomph to propel it to true greatness. In this particular case, a riveting, visually striking aquatic horror movie arriving in the dregs of January definitely qualifies as ďgood enough,Ē though.
*I know it's frustrating that movies can sometime start nearly 30 minutes after the announced showtime, but it turns out this is one of the few ways theaters can even make money anymore. Something to keep in mind the next time you're bristling at watching that M&Ms pre-show ad for the 300th time in your life.
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